A Handmade Home
ANY fool can hire an architect to draw up a plan for a house, but it takes a truly inspired fool — which is to say, an artist — to start building and see where the earth and driftwood and shards of broken pottery take him, and an equally impassioned fool — say, a woman in love — to go along and carry the rocks on her back.
This is how it was with the little-known sculptural home that is Eliphante, three acres of fantastical domes, shacks and follies created over 28 years by Michael Kahn and his wife, Leda Livant. Here there is the residence, which has 25-foot ceilings and incorporates rocks and scraps from construction sites; there, a studio, one wall of which is the Ford pickup that brought the couple west; and a labyrinthine art gallery called Pipedreams, in which every painting has its own environment.
The building that gave the compound its name has a long, trunklike entrance made of rock and an irregularly mounded roof. “Aaah, Ella-fahn-tay,” a friend joked soon after it was built, giving it a playful faux-French pronunciation.
The couple began building when they first arrived here, although they did not own the property, and they continued to do so until the progressive brain disease, which killed Mr. Kahn this December at age 71, robbed him of the ability to speak.
Was there a floor plan? Did they discuss the number of bedrooms, the layout of the kitchen?
“We didn’t think in those terms,” says Ms. Livant, who is 82. “We thought shelter from the elements and a beautiful place to live in: stained glass and pottery and wood, sleeping loft and a fireplace. Michael had no definite plan except to work and see what the natural shape would be. If you stay with a preconceived notion of what you want, it could be too restrictive.”
Eliphante is in red-rock country, near Sedona, and while Ms. Livant and Mr. Kahn turned it into a non-profit arts organization in the late 1980s and she still permits occasional tours to offset the costs, it remains hidden. (Information is at eliphante.org.) The sign, painted on a stump, is small, and the compound is bounded by a creek. If the waters are low and a vehicle is sturdy, a visitor can drive across; otherwise Lonnie Haight, a 46-year-old woodcarver and handyman who helps out at Eliphante, will get you in a canoe while Ms. Livant waits on the other side.
This is where she was last week, a beautiful old hippie with lush white hair, a pink vest over a purple sweater and, around her neck, a leather pouch that does not contain, as one suspects, her husband’s ashes, but her hearing aid.
The property is a mixture of disarray and magic: a tree adorned with clusters of bottles; a court fenced in with battered rackets, called the Nennis court since there is no net and no tennis; sculpture; and an incongruous carpet of AstroTurf, contributed by the nearby town of Cottonwood when it renovated its tennis courts. “At first I thought it was terribly artificial,” Ms. Livant says. “But it keeps the dust down, and it highlights the sculpture. And it does not prevent rain from coming through to nurture the earth.”
Everything is slightly off-kilter, and many structures and pieces of art have been damaged by the floodwaters of the creek, the climate and what Ms. Livant calls critters. In the mountains of Arizona, that means more than squirrels.
“You know what that is?” Ms. Livant says, as she takes a visitor up the rocky hill leading to the compound. “Coyote poop.” A portal in a rock wall that once afforded a panoramic view of the property has been filled with dirt by a gopher. Mice nibble the ends of the canvases in the Pipedreams gallery. Last year, Ms. Livant’s dog was killed.
“Rattlesnakes,” Ms. Livant says. “They’re hibernating now.”
Ms. Livant’s residence is called Hippodome. It rises gently out of the ground, looking somewhat like a hippo emerging from a lake. One exterior wall has a mosaic of yellow and blue ceramic tiles, left over from somebody’s expensive kitchen renovation.
Ms. Livant’s daughter, Wendy Jones, who has come in from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for a visit and is a communications manager for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a life coach, says she understands why it might make a visitor stop and stare. “Looks like something a Hobbit would live in, doesn’t it?” she asks.
Hippodome has electricity, heat, a phone line and water, but no bathroom or toilet. To wash, one goes across the property to the bathhouse, where the solar-heated shower is a length of chopped hose but the windows are stained glass. A small plot with a low fence and a tin roof serves as the outhouse and smells fresher than most New York City restrooms. If a woman wishes to urinate, she finds an AstroTurf-free plot of ground and does so watchfully, given what happened to the dog. After the tour, Ms. Livant sits down in the Hippodome’s kitchen, her daughter perched behind her on the free-form counter, and tells her story.
She was 45 years old, married and living in Westport, Conn., when Mr. Kahn came into her life. Her husband was a psychologist named Saul Ader; there were two children, Wendy and Peter. They lived in an 18th-century house and owned a Volvo and a Saab. Ms. Livant had an interest in drawing and painting, but busied herself with volunteer work. Then, in 1970, when her daughter was in college and her son was in high school, and the domestic discontent of the ’60s had moved into the suburbs, everything changed.
“My husband and I went for a vacation on Cape Cod, and I met Michael, who was an artist there,” Ms. Livant says. “He showed me one of his large canvases,” a dark blue abstract painting with a small rectangle of light. “What I saw in that particular painting was an image that invoked fear in me,” she adds. “I thought, there’s another world I have to explore. I knew I had to open my eyes to the rest of my life.”
Three months later, Ms. Livant left her family and went to live with Mr. Kahn, who was 10 years her junior, in Provincetown. To support them, she took a job cleaning houses. “People said, ‘Leda must have gone crazy,’ ” Ms. Livant says. “It wasn’t craziness, it was like a rebirth. Within three weeks of my moving to Cape Cod, I got pneumonia and almost died, I was in such mourning for my family and so vulnerable, and the sadness of having left my kids has never left me.”
She pauses, and her eyes tear up. “I always get a lump in my throat when I realize — but I have been forgiven.”
Her daughter steps in, reminding her mother of her own work, her weaving and painting. “When you connected with Mike, there was something else,” Ms. Jones says. “I think there was a connection between the artists’ lives.”
Ms. Livant is still unable to discuss her own work. “The hardships of my psychological life did not outweigh the fact that I was so in love with Michael that I would have and did put up with anything,” she says. “Cold in winter, not enough food sometimes, on my hands and knees to do housework, when I had paid people to do my housework.” In 1979 the couple came to Sedona, where Mr. Kahn had read that the rocks so inspired Max Ernst. There they met Bob and Joan Crozier, two business people who offered them three acres rent-free.
The work on the first structure, which was built into a side of a hill, began immediately — when a friend with a backhoe didn’t show up, Mr. Kahn picked up his shovel and started digging. The building would have a piano set into a wall, driftwood sculptures and stained glass. During the five years it took to complete, the couple lived in an 8-by-10-foot shack with a wood-burning stove but no electricity or plumbing, which Mr. Kahn also built. They called it the Winter Palace, and Ms. Livant says it was the best home she has ever lived in. When they were not building, they made art.
There was never any money. Occasionally, Mr. Kahn sold a painting. Ms. Livant’s father sent about $50 a month. Ms. Jones recalls sending $40 a month, directly to a supermarket in Sedona; it was the only way to insure it would be used for food, not paint, she says.
Ms. Livant and Mr. Kahn continued painting and building. Sometimes others, like Michael Glastonbury, a British-born contractor who today lives in Oregon, joined them. “Whatever wood floated down the creek during the winter floods was salvaged,” says Mr. Glastonbury, who has worked on the compound for the last 20 years. “If it was a particularly nice shape, we’d twist it around and fit it in.”
Mr. Glastonbury met the couple in the mid-1980s, when they were building Hippodome and they hired him to make the kitchen cabinets and counter. Mr. Glastonbury had been trained as an engineer’s patternmaker and had worked for Rolls-Royce in England. Mr. Kahn’s approach was a shock. “I was Mr. Straight and Plumb and Square to the world,” Mr. Glastonbury says. “He gave me no direction. I said, What do you like? He’d say, ‘What do you like?’ ”
Mr. Glastonbury admired Mr. Kahn. But he was aware of Mr. Kahn’s limitations as a builder. With money tight, Mr. Kahn had the habit of stretching a bag of cement — instead of using a ratio of four bags of sand to every one of cement, Mr. Kahn would use 8 or 10.
In 2004, Mr. Kahn received a diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia, a progressive brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s. But even in the last weeks of his life, when he was reduced to the level of a 3-year-old, Ms. Livant said, Mr. Kahn was drawing, an artist to his bones.
Her concern now is for Eliphante. Her landlords, the Croziers, say they plan to deed the property to Eliphante, and they are in agreement about its future: they would like it to be a place to nurture the arts, where there might be performances and workshops, and the buildings would be maintained. But given her age, Ms. Livant says, she would like to have someone to oversee the management of the property. She needs to find a home for her husband’s paintings. And the property is in desperate need of repair.
About 10 years ago, in an attempt to get a grant from the Smithsonian, the artists hired an architectural conservator to evaluate the property. The expert calculated that it needed about $28,000 in repairs. They never did get the grant.
Michael Kahn was in good health at that time. Did they try to make any repairs? “We’d never done anything, except when there was a leak,” Ms. Livant says. “We had no money, and he was painting. He’d much rather paint than repair. Always, always, always, always, always.”
By JOYCE WADLER – JAN. 31, 2008